Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Aukland Allies by Mike Reeves-McMillan

AucklandAllies_MRMCover_rev104Genre: Urban Fantasy with Steampunk Highlights

Description: As bit players in the world of magic, Tara, Sparx, and their clairvoyant acquaintance Steampunk Sally are careful to stay clear of New Zealand’s supernatural politics. So after Sally uses her powers to win a little money at blackjack, it’s a nasty surprise when hired goons come after them.

Hitting the streets, they try to find out who these Blokes in Black work for, why such a dangerous and powerful figure has his sights set on three magical nobodies–and how to protect themselves.

Another fun read from Mike Reeves-McMillan, author of the Gryphon Clerks series. Disclaimer called for as usual; I beta read for Mike (and vice-versa) and I beta read this book. What I usually expect from Mike is a book with very deep and powerful characterization, but a bit of a disorganized plot that could be tighter.

Aukland Allies is an exception to that rule. It’s fast-paced, with a well-knit story line that blends a thrilling struggle against nefarious foes of awesome power with nerdy personal conflicts and a bit of off-beat romance.

The story is set in Aukland, New Zealand, where Mike lives. That’s an unusual setting for urban fantasy. Most UF stories are set either in the United States or in the UK. But it works well, and the descriptions of the city and its barely-tamed environs are a large part of the book’s considerable charm. One delicious scene has Sally overcoming an armed and magically potent attacker using local wildlife as a weapon, in a way that strangers from the northern hemisphere would never expect.

Aukland Allies is not only a great story in its own right, but it has the potential to start an urban fantasy series that’s unusual and way above average. It’s got a subculture of magical practitioners, with shadowy, authoritarian people in positions of power, fascist nasties like the Blokes in Black, and much youthful rebellion and challenge to fossilized tradition.

Applying my usual objective system, I’m going to give Aukland Allies five stars. This is the first time I’ve done that for one of Mike’s stories, but this one has superior characterization and writing (as his usually do), and also a superior plot.

If you like urban fantasy, geek culture, or occult stories, get this book.

It’s available at Amazon and other outlets for $2.99.

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Book Review: Three Great Lies by Vanessa MacLellan

TGL CoverGenre: Portal Fantasy

Publisher: Hadley Rille Books

Description:

While vacationing in Egypt. . .

Jeannette Walker, a cynical scientist jaded by swarms of tour groups and knick-knack shacks, is lured by a teenage tour guide to visit a newly discovered tomb. No other tourists there! Inside the chamber, she tumbles down a shaft and 3000 years back in time.

Now, in a world where deities walk the streets and prophecy heats up the air, Jeannette is desperate for normal and the simple pleasures of sanitation and refrigeration. However, a slave master hawking a cat-headed girl derails her homebound mission, and Jeannette–penniless in this ancient world–steals the girl, bringing down the tireless fury of the slaver.

Saddled with a newly awakened mummy and the cat-headed girl, Jeannette contrives a plan to free them from the slaver’s ire, but will she have to dive into the belly of the beast to succeed?

This debut novel by Vanessa MacLellan is one of the most thoroughly researched works of fiction I’ve ever read. The details in the fantasy version of ancient Egypt into which the protagonist falls are meticulously presented, from the sand infesting the bread to the unfiltered quality of the beer to the conservative, deeply religious character of the culture. That was the second thing I noticed as I read this book. (I’ll get to the first thing in a moment.)

The story is one of self-discovery and personal evolution alongside a struggle against unreasonable authority and the birth of unlikely friendships. The “three great lies” of the title are, on the surface, a fortune cookie message that Jeannette received at a restaurant in our world before she was transported to that one. On a deeper level, each of the main characters (Jeannette, Aboyami the mummy, and Sanura the cat-headed teenage daughter of Bast) has a strong belief about herself or himself that proves to be a lie. Jeannette believes that her goal, the thing she desires most, is to get out of the primitive, superstitious madhouse into which she has fallen and return to modern civilization. Aboyami has lost his heart scarab and believes that he needs to get it back and proceed to the afterlife. Sanura believes that she is lost without her litter mates and needs to return to being just like all the other kittens. None of these beliefs is true, but the protagonists must undergo a confrontation with a slaver and some tomb-robbers and a great deal of personal growth before they can discover the truth. All of which makes for a truly inspiring and satisfying story.

Now for that first thing I noticed, which prevents me from giving this book five stars, which I normally would, for a great story, extraordinary characterization, and above-average writing. The story begins poorly. Ms. MacLellan makes a common first-novel mistake by plunging into the main action before giving the reader a chance to get to know and care about the main character. We learn later the reasons why Jeannette is the way she is, but in the beginning all that comes across is a shallow, frivolous person who doesn’t care about anyone but herself and is incapable of understanding a foreign culture. Within the first few pages, she suffers a fall and is transported into a weird land where she has a hard time surviving, but this reader at least didn’t much care, until later in the tale’s unfolding. A little time spent with Jeannette before she finds herself in this predicament, a presentation of the betrayal by her fiance and her best friend that forms such a wound across her life, a bit on her tragic family background — some understand of who she is — would have fixed that, so that when she did find herself stuck in Kemet, we would feel and care about her problems.

As it is, all of that comes out over the course of the story, and Jeannette grows in strength, compassion, courage, and understanding as she deals with the problems she faces. She forms a strong bond with the other two protagonists and unfolds like a blossom. The plot is gripping, the character development profound, and the ending immensely satisfying. If you, like me, find yourself put off by the slam-bam beginning and the unappealing character of Jeannette in the first part of the book, and are tempted to abandon it — do yourself a favor, and resist that temptation. Get past that first section, and Three Great Lies will greatly reward your patience and persistence. This is a wonderful story, and we can expect marvelous things from Vanessa MacLellan in the future.

Available from Amazon for $5.99 (Kindle) or $16.00 (print).

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Book Review: Going Through the Change by Samantha Bryant

cover2500Genre: Superhero story

Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press, VA

Description:

Going through “the change” isn’t easy on any woman. Mood swings, hot flashes, hormonal imbalances, and itchy skin are par for the course. But for these four seemingly unrelated women, menopause brought changes none of them had ever anticipated-super-heroic changes. Helen discovers a spark within that reignites her fire. Jessica finds that her mood is lighter, and so is her body. Patricia always had a tough hide, but now even bullets bounce off her. Linda doesn’t have trouble opening the pickle jar anymore…now that she’s a man. When events throw the women together, they find out that they have more in common than they knew-one person has touched all their lives. The hunt for answers is on.

This story has perhaps the most original and unusual premise in recent years. Menopause plus the strange concoctions of an unscrupulous scientist combine to give four women super powers. One obtains the power of flight. Another becomes fireproof and gains the ability to create and control fire. A third undergoes a sex change and gains super strength. A fourth develops reptilian scales that emerge when she is angry or frightened and make her impervious to bullets and most other physical damage.

In most comic-book-type superhero stories, someone who developed super powers would quickly adjust to the new reality and set out to accomplish something — save the world, get revenge, make herself rich — and slide smoothly into one of the standard comic slots: superhero, super-villain, anti-hero. Going Through the Change takes a somewhat more realistic approach, as each of the empowered women spends a lot of the book trying to figure out what is wrong and looking for a cure. This allows for some good character development which, unfortunately, comes at the expense of pacing and plot during the first half of the book. It doesn’t pick up the pace and become a more conventional action-packed superhero story until the second half.

The characters themselves are well developed, but I found most of them not very sympathetic. The clear exception is Linda/Leonel, whose menopausal transformation changes her from a petite housewife into a strapping man with superhuman strength. Her ongoing compassion, dedication to her family, kindness, and good sense make her (him?) the best of the bunch. Jessica the airborne, who in her thirties is also by far the youngest of the women (her menopause is the result of surgical removal of her ovaries to treat ovarian cancer), comes across as insecure and flighty (no pun intended by me, though Ms. Bryant may have intended one) until circumstances force her to learn how to control her power. Patricia of the reptilian armor scales is a hard-assed business executive, the classic boss from Hell, and I found her quite unlikable (perhaps because I’ve worked for too many people like her, male and female both). Helen the fireball-tosser becomes addicted to her destructive power and is the closest of the bunch to fitting a standard super-villain role. Her madness is terrifying and her indifference to human suffering is chilling.

The unscrupulous genius behind all the changes, Cindy Liu, although possessing no super-powers herself beyond remarkable scientific brilliance (but then, neither did Lex Luthor, right?), is the pure archetype of the bad, bad scientist whose devotion to her work eclipses any shred of humanity.

The pace of the book picks up very strongly in the second half, when Linda/Leonel, Jessica, and Patricia figure out the central role of Dr. Liu in their transformations and try to track her down and make her reverse what she has done, or at least explain it. Helen joins up with Dr. Liu who is the source of the pills that give her fiery powers, which Helen loves and wants to keep. The story features lots of superhero fight scenes and plot twists once it gets rolling.

The biggest complaint that people have about Going Through the Change is its ending, which leaves a lot of things unresolved. That would be quite acceptable in the start of a series, with more to come, which may be the case, although it’s not specified as such anywhere. On the assumption that it is the first part of a series, I’m going to give the book four stars, for superior characterization and concept, and let’s hope that the potential is developed further in sequels to the story.

Available from Amazon for $4.99 (Kindle Edition) or $15.99 in print.

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Book Review: Quest For the Simurgh by Marva Dasef (Faizah’s Destiny Book One)

QuestSimurghGenre: Young Adult Fantasy (Other World)

Blurb: The village magician, Wafai, has gone missing. His star pupil Faizah thinks he has left a clue for her on a page of the Magicalis Bestialis. With the page open and marked with an X, she believes Wafai is telling them to seek out the Simurgh, the mythical birds who possess all the knowledge of the universe. She convinces her three classmates that they must seek the help of the Simurgh to find their teacher.

She leads the boys on a difficult journey into the mountains in search of the elusive birds. A strange little man becomes their guide. However, they do not know he is a spirit leading them toward a battle between good and evil. Spirits, gods, and demons confront the four friends, who are being set up by the otherworldly forces for a much larger task than finding their teacher. The students were chosen to take sides in the battle which might spell the end of the world: a battle between the demons and the spirits.

 

Disclaimer: As with most of the books I review, I know the author somewhat on social media.

Quest For the Simurgh is the first volume of Marva Dasef’s YA fantasy series Faizah’s Destiny, in which we are introduced to Faizah and other characters. Faizah is a plucky, spunky heroine introducing a bit of feminist precociousness into a primitive world where it’s not particularly welcome, a not uncommon element in YA fantasy. She’s the daughter of a family that eventually intends to marry her off to someone boring, but in this story she breaks her family ties almost inadvertently and without actually recognizing the deed.

The goal of finding the mysterious Simurgh arises when Faizah and her friend discover their teacher’s disordered house and evidence of his abduction, and an apparent note in one of his books that they interpret as a message from him to seek the Simurgh in order to find the missing Wafai. The kids fall for it, despite holes in their reasoning one could drive a camel caravan through, and a series of arrangements and manipulations follows that lets each of the four escape their families and embark on the quest.

They’re being manipulated themselves, though, and end up caught in a struggle between War and Peace (not exactly Good and Evil as the blurb suggests, but close enough), with the gods maneuvering them into taking sides. The original problems are ultimately resolved, but not before the protagonists wind their way through the divine squaring off.

This book is quite well written, and the quality of the writing drew me in immediately. The characters are also nicely drawn, particularly Faizah herself, who is engaging and easy to identify with. On the basis of superior characterization and writing, Quest For the Simurgh merits four stars.

The one area where I felt it could use improvement is in the plot and story line, which was a bit difficult to follow at times and on occasion broke immersion for me. The protagonists were led on a snipe hunt, essentially, with the gods and the guide they encountered on the road leading them in a completely different direction than they originally intended. That’s not a problem in itself, but there were occasions when any character as intelligent as Faizah should have stopped to say, “Wait a minute. Why are we going this way? We should be going that way instead. What are you up to?” I felt this could have been better constructed so as to give the journey greater verisimilitude and make the fast one pulled by the gods and spirits a bit more believable.

Aside from that, this is a good read for young readers, and the stage is set for sequels, which apparently are in the works. I’ll add that the technical quality is quite high. The book is well edited, the cover is nice, and the blurb succinct and catching. Always nice to see an indie author who does that sort of thing right.

Quest For the Simurgh is available for $2.99 from Amazon Kindle Store and also available in print for $6.99.

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Book Review: Beastheads by Mike Reeves-McMillan

mrm-beastheads-eBookCoverGenre: Fantasy/Steampunk

Blurb: When the old shaman took Berry away from her home and family, she expected to become a shaman in turn. But after her oath shatters, she finds a new place as a Gryphon Clerk, helping negotiate a treaty with the beasthead people.
A beasthead shaman stands against her, fearing the loss of his people’s way of life and the corruption of their youth. As the Human Purity movement gains power in a nearby realm, though, the beasthead and the clerk must find a way through their differences before war destroys everything they value.

The author calls Beastheads Volume 0 in his Gryphon Clerks series. Other books in the series include Realmgolds, Hope and the Clever Man, and Hope and the Patient Man. All these stories are set in a fantasy world where human slaves rebelled against a tyrannical elvish empire in the past, and today the human nations live with the cultural and magical residue left behind by the elves. As with other stories in the series, Beastheads addresses a theme of racial bias and intolerance, as well as the tension between progress and conservatism.

A disclaimer before proceeding: I was a beta reader for Beastheads and know Mike Reeves-McMillan via social media. He also beta reads for me.

As with all of Mike’s work, Beastheads is strongly character driven. The plot grows organically from the interaction of the characters like vines twisting about one another as they emerge from the soil. In Beastheads, the twisting vines include Berry’s shamanic destiny, interrupted and sidelined into the Gryphon Clerks; Breeze and Wave, each with an animal soul merged into a human body, but different animals (wolf and seal, respectively), their love seen as odd from the outside for this reason; Rain, orphaned and struggling to survive her childhood on the gang-dominated streets; Stone, gay in a sharply homophobic world; Grass Badger, irritated and irritating cattlehead shaman who fears any and all change; in each case a note struck of difference, alienation, difficulty fitting in. The beastheads themselves, who are the result of a weird elven experiment (humans with cattle, dog, or cat heads and some characteristics from the animals) sound the same note on a larger scale.

The team of misfit Gryphon Clerks is sent to negotiate a treaty with the beastheads, and must deal with their suspicions of outsiders and, eventually, the outside world’s suspicions of them, as well as its exploitation of their weaknesses. So many harmonic notes are sounded regarding the interaction of the alien that the end result is almost symphonic, and it is this rather than any conventional plotting lines that make Beastheads the story that it is. The conflict between Berry and Grass Badger, which encompasses her failed apprenticeship as well as his resistance to anything threatening to change the beasthead way of life, is particularly poignant.

For above-average writing and superb character development, along with detailed exploration of the theme of racism and intolerance in a fantasy setting, I’ll give this book four stars. The plotting and story line could have been tighter and more gripping, hence the lack of the fifth star. Beastheads is still well worth taking a look in my opinion.

Beastheads is available from Amazon Kindle Store for $2.99.

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Book Review: Stormcaller by R.K. MacPherson

StormcallerGenre: Contemporary Fantasy

Book description:

Power always carries a price…
For Isaura Durand, homeless life on the streets of Seattle posed plenty of challenges. She didn’t ask to become a witch. She didn’t understand how it would change her, but when she awakens to her power, Isaura finds herself plunged into a brutal struggle with dark forces.
Thrust into the heart of Seattle’s eldritch world, Isaura uncovers a series of ritual sacrifices designed to unleash magic’s true power upon the world.
Allied with a grumpy Norwegian mage, a Native American shaman on a Harley, and a beautiful medic, Isaura must overcome her own demons and her growing list of enemies. Victory is anything but certain, and to survive, Isaura must embrace her potential and become the…
STORMCALLER
The eldritch world of Stormcaller includes several types of adept. Mages and Diabolists employ complex ritual and rely on other-planar powers, Sanguinars use blood to fuel their magic, and Witches channel the power of their environment in a spontaneous fashion. Isaura, the main protagonist and title character, is a Witch, and one of unique powers that soon have the whole eldritch world in a tizzy and earn her the name “Stormcaller.” (You can figure it out. It’s not hard.) That plus the modern Seattle setting pretty much covers the world-building in this novel. It’s simple and creates a good backdrop for the story and the characters, both of which are first-rate, as is the writing. For that reason, being superior in plot, characters, and writing, Stormcaller gets five stars.
Isaura is also a nineteen-year-old homeless college student as the tale opens. The depiction of homeless life at very nearly its worst is dead on in its full gritty, weary awfulness (I say that as one who has been there). Isaura has also been pursuing studies in magic out of curiosity and despite the attempts of her friend Marius, owner of an occult bookstore, to discourage her. The result is the  awakening of her power and Isaura’s first real trial: the attempt of a demon to destroy her and eat her soul.
Thus the story begins with heavy conflict and excitement and it continues that way through arcane intrigues, lethal plots, world-changing schemes, youthful folly, and new love. This reader cared a lot about the characters even though I often wanted to send Isaura to her room without her supper. The book had that can’t-put-it-down quality that I love in a story, and the pacing is just about perfect.
The only thing that would improve the book is a final round of editing. It wasn’t completely awful in that respect, but I found too many instances where words had been omitted, or a common mistake used in phrasing (for example, “one in the same” instead of “one and the same”), or words were doubled up.
That certainly didn’t help matters, but it didn’t stop me from wildly enjoying the story, either, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy set in our own world.
Stormcaller is available for $3.99 from Amazon Kindle Store and is also available in print for $9.99.

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Book Review: A Noble’s Quest by Ryan Toxopeus

Nobles-Quest-cover-FONTED-smallGenre: Alternate-World Fantasy

Author’s Description:

Thomas and Sarentha flee everything they know when Thomas murders a co-worker.  In the dead of night, a cloaked noble approaches and offers them a sum of coins they cannot refuse. His sole request is for the pair to retrieve an amethyst
from a tomb.

From there, they are introduced to Eliza, a spirited and head-strong noblewoman who proves her competence with her skills in diplomacy and combat. Together with Thomas’ strength and steadfastness, and Sarentha’s drive and inquisitiveness, the trio makes an odd but capable group.

Their adventures take them across the lands of the Tamorran Empire to witness sights they never imagined. With grand plans in motion, everything hinges on Thomas, Sarentha, and Eliza’s success. Artifacts need to be crafted, alliances need to be formed, and above all, secrets need to be kept. Not even their own allies know every facet of the noble’s quest, and he plays a dangerous game by creating plots within plots.

Can the disparate trio hold together throughout their trials? What secret does the noble know that causes him to go to such
extraordinary lengths to succeed? Dark shadows blanket the Tamorran Empire, and illuminating those secrets will bring a terrifying truth.

I’m going to give this alternate-world fantasy story four stars mostly for effort and potential. Otherwise, it would rate three. I found the writing and characters so-so, but the plot was original and interesting and involved a mystery I didn’t see through until it was revealed, despite the clues. Almost from the beginning, the reader will notice that the different races are much-too-conveniently organized, with each having its own segregated town, mingling only in the national capital. That comes across at first as poor world-building (especially combined with another thing that I’ll go into in a moment), but it turns out that it’s an important plot element and there’s a very logical (and insidious) reason for it.

Now, the reason it comes across at first as poor world-building rather than the mysterious element that it actually is, is because the world-building in A Noble’s Quest, unlike the plot, is in fact rather unimaginative. The society consists of five sentient races, and the non-human ones are actually called Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Halflings. Worse, the characteristics of each race sound like a combination of Dungeons & Dragons and World of Warcraft. Elves are slim, magical, long-lived, and reside in the woods; Dwarves have Scottish accents, drink heroically, live underground in the mountains, and make things. Gnomes are tinkerers and inventors. Halflings are greedy and often regarded as thieves, or the merchant equivalent. Although not part of the society, there are Orcs and Goblins in the story, too, and they’re just as predictable, right down to the hulking, green-skinned, and betusked appearance of the former.

Setting all that aside, and although the book held my interest, it could have been so much better. The main characters are outlined rather than developed. We learn little about their background, and aside from a few characteristics (Thomas is a mighty warrior who doesn’t like to kill people, Sarentha is a roguish fellow who wants to escape his dreary life) we know little about what motivates them. Seldom do their emotions erupt; rather, they ooze. I can see so many ways in which that could be improved: a sub-plot of unrequited desire between Sarentha or Thomas or both, and their lovely, competent half-Elf companion, Eliza; a situation in which their lives are seriously imperiled and we feel it; strong temptation on Sarentha’s part to betray the quest for gold; More situations in which Thomas must deal with his innate ferocity that conflicts with his desire for peace. None of that happens, or if it does, it’s depicted in watercolor and pencil drawing rather than vivid oil tints.

This is Ryan Toxopeus’ first novel, unless I’m mistaken, and the originality and creativity of the plot in A Noble’s Quest shows that he has plenty of potential. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal too much about that plot without spoiling it; suffice to say that the Empire is not what it appears to be, and the reality is monstrous enough to require desperate action to remedy — action taken by people who can’t even be allowed to know why they’re doing it, lest the fact that they know should get back to those in authority. The main thing the book needs is more time spent rewriting, with a view to developing the characters more deeply into people the reader will care about more. (The cookie-cutter world building trips a personal wire, and I admit that. It would be easily set aside if the characters and the writing were more compelling.)

A Noble’s Quest is available for $3.99 from the Amazon Kindle Store, and will shortly be available in print as well.

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